People love talking about how social media has changed things. But beyond being able to see your second cousin’s puppy and hearing your college roommate’s opinion on wheat gluten… has it?
According to a growing body of academic research, political behavior is perhaps the most notable area of such transformation.
A recent controlled, scientific study explored the effects of social media in the 2012 presidential campaign from a third-person perspective. Ran Wei of the University of South Carolina and Guy Golan of Syracuse University used a sample of nearly 500 college students and surveyed participants’ beliefs on the influence of an array of ads on themselves and on others.
As is almost always found in studies such as this one, people tend to believe that political ads have a far greater influence on others than on themselves. Wei and Golan found that this “third-person perception” is nevertheless a positive predictor of engagement in social media behavior.
In other words, believing that a political ad on social media influences other people is a strong predictor that you yourself will promote the material on social media. These findings held even when controlling for voter demographic and political characteristics, as well as personal traits such as political attitudes and cynicism.
Translation: the nearly $160 million spent on online political advertising during the 2012 elections was not spent in vain. The bulk of this, $47 million in social media spending by President Obama’s campaign, was ten times greater than Mitt Romney’s.
If the goal was exclusively to reach young voters, it would have done the trick. After all, something like 85 percent of college students are Facebook users.But the findings from Wei and Golan’s study have far wider implications. They find that online political advertising is a primary channel for sparking attitudinal and behavioral responses in people.
“Political advertisements distributed via social networks may play a role in the democratization of political socialization and provide voters with greater efficacy,” they write.
And this matters why? Because people who feel high in “efficacy” are the same ones who ultimately show up on Election Day… straight from the profile to the polls, and from the bit.ly to the ballot.